P&B: Ray Thomas
This is the 9th edition of People and Blogs, the series where I ask interesting people to talk about themselves and their blogs. Today we have Ray Thomas and his blog, brisray.com
Ray is a British expat to the US and a former web designer and developer, now retired. He's also the owner of a 20+ years old personal website and that's amazing. Some people refer to him as the master of the webrings because of his incredible work on the subject.
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Let's start from the basics: can you introduce yourself?
My name is Ray. I am British from Bristol, but now live in Indiana. I didn’t do that well in my final years of secondary education (high school) but around 1974 a teacher started a class about programming using Fortran. The school didn’t have a single computer, not even for admin, so we would write the programs, then go to a local university to see them put onto punch cards (do not fold, spindle or mutilate) which would be run the next week, and pick up the previous week’s programs. I didn’t do much with it, but never forgot the experience.
I didn’t get my own computer until 1985, an Amstrad 1640. No hard drive, but twin 5.25” floppy disk drives. Later I added a 32Mb Winchester drive to it and the world was mine!
With no qualifications I ended up in some dead-end jobs but realized I could do much more. I wrote a bunch of CDs of things I had written and sent them off to about 40 companies. One of them, the now long-gone Mail Marketing International took a chance, took me on and I became a database engineer. Within a couple of years, I was their head programmer.
In the mid-1990s I was chatting to some American woman in one of the old BBSs. We hit it off and began visiting each other. In 2001, I picked up sticks and moved to the US. We have been happily married ever since.
I had to start all over again and became a freelance web developer. In 2008, a university wanted me to redesign and rewrite some of their websites. That was a multi-year contract and at the end of it they wanted me to work for them full-time and I was there until I retired in 2023.
What's the story behind your blog?
My dad was a sailor and for years he was in the Royal Navy and those were probably the best years of his life. He kept photo albums of everywhere he visited and as kids we would love to look through them. He died in 1994 and I scanned all the photos but didn’t know what to do with them.
In 1998, Patty, my now wife, wanted to know more about Bristol, my home city. At the time there were not many websites around, about 2 million compared to today’s 2 billion, and none about Bristol. I’ve always been interested in local history and had taken hundreds of photos over the years, so I decided to write one.
I used the free Lycos Tripod to host that first site. Not only did I write pages about Bristol but my dad’s scanned photos also found a home there. A while later I added pages about other things and the site has been expanding ever since.
I was a bit overwhelmed with the reception the site got. A local newspaper found it and I got an article in that. BBC local radio also found it and I did some radio broadcasts for them as well.
The site has had three redesigns since I started it, but the content has never changed. Some of the older pages are still there even though the site is fast approaching its 25th anniversary.
What does your creative process look like when it comes to blogging?
I don’t have much of a creative process. I get thoughts about what I would like to write about and make notes for myself in a Word document. That document is now over 140 pages long so it might be a while before I run out of ideas.
I get obsessed with whatever I am interested in and I am interested in so much! Most of what I write is either historical or technical and those pages take a lot of research to make accurate. Back in Bristol, I spent many weekends in the basement of Bristol Central Library going though old documents.
I write whenever I get the time and the urge. Some months I will write hardly anything, others I’ll write or edit a dozen or so pages. The pages are published as soon as I bash them into some sort of shape to be readable. I can always add to them later.
Now and then people will suggest subjects for me to look into, and if I get interested in them, I’ll write as much as I can find. Other than those pieces, the site is pretty much a one man show.
Do you have an ideal creative environment? Also do you believe the physical space influences your creativity?
No to the above questions. So long as I have had a couple of coffees, the environment doesn’t matter much to me. My work spaces when I was working were always very spartan. A chair, a desk, and the computers were all I have ever needed. Whatever creativity or technical skill I have is mostly in my head, which is cluttered enough, and the scraps of paper I have scattered about and that’s really all I need.
A question for the techie readers: can you run us through your tech stack?
I suppose I’m a bit of a Luddite, I don’t need the latest and greatest or shiniest. At the university, over the years we used a variety of CMSs. We had just started moving to Drupal 10 when I retired.
My own first pages were written using Microsoft’s FrontPage Express, then I moved on to their SharePoint Designer. One of the few pieces of software I paid for was Adobe Creative Suite before it became a subscription service. I had access to the full Creative Cloud for work and as I often worked from home I usually edited the site in Dreamweaver. Image creation and tidying up has nearly always been done in Photoshop.
As I use my own designs for my own sites which are fairly simple and written from scratch, I simply write a template page and use that for all the pages.
Over the years the site grew so big I had to spread it out over several other free hosts such as Freeserve, Bravenet and others. Around the time I moved to the US in 2001, I was using about half a dozen hosts.
In 2004, I decided to simplify it all and created my own home web server using an MMX Pentium machine that I got from a local community college for $25. The computer has changed several times but the site has been self-hosted since then. I must have spent a small fortune in electricity over the years keeping “The Server in the Cellar” running 24/7 for almost 20 years, rather than find a good, cheapish host, but it’s mine and I enjoy the challenge.
Given your experience, if you were to start a blog today, would you do anything differently?
Oh my, no. I’ve been doing this so long I’m used to the way I work and would probably feel uncomfortable if I changed anything. Brisray is a mix of my own name and where I’m from, that isn’t likely to change.
Financial question since the web is obsessed with money: how much does it cost to run your blog? Is it just a cost or does it generate some revenue? And what's your position on people monetising personal blogs?
There’s two pieces of software I would purchase for myself, Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite. I haven’t had to that for years as the people who employed me provided them. Other than those I have relied on the generosity and expertise of people who create and distribute free software, whether FOSS or closed source. I really am in awe of them and what they provide to cheapskates like me.
The only things my site has ever cost me is a lot of time and the electricity needed to keep the server running over the last couple of decades. I write because I want to and I am not particularly interested in making money of off it, not even to cover the running costs.
When I started the sites, brisray.com, hmsgambia.org and ihor4x4.com I was a bit surprised any of them got any visitors at all. Knowing they do and at least some of them keep coming back is reward enough for me. I’m also pretty proud that everything from start to finish and even hosting them is all my own work – apart from standing on the shoulders of some very clever, generous people of course.
Time for some recommendations: any blog you think is worth checking out? And also, who do you think I should be interviewing next?
I like the idea of the web revival. The personal web never really totally went away but once the giants of the free servers such as Lycos, Tripod, Yahoo, Freeserve, Bravenet, Geocities and the others disappeared it was in the doldrums for years.
Places like Neocities are introducing a whole new generation of writers and designers to the joys and tribulations of writing websites. Some of them are making the same mistakes we were making a quarter of a century ago, but at least they are giving the personal web a new lease of life.
Final question: is there anything you want to share with us?
The internet is such an interesting place and having your own little corner of it can be so easy.
This was the 9th edition of People and Blogs. Hope you enjoyed this interview with Ray. Make sure to follow his blog and get in touch with him if you have any questions.
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